Disclaimer: All property of Naruto belongs to Kishimoto Masashi

/ ˈrʌb(ə)l / · noun
waste or rough fragments of stone, brick, concrete, etc., especially as the debris from the demolition of buildings.
pieces of rough or undressed stone used in building walls, especially as filling for cavities.

Namikaze Minato swept into the Council Room with an icy mien that quietened the room immediately. Footsteps silent, cloak waving behind him and his emblazoned title and hemmed flames suddenly blaringly red against white, he took his rightful place at the head of the table. The crowd parted for the Yondaime while Shikaku shadowed, their eyes wide in disbelief and awe.

Most days, the Yellow Flash was seemingly cordial and kind, a patient smile etched on his face as he dealt with the matters of Konoha. But tonight, his demeanour had a cutting edge in the glacial blue of his eyes, almost daring someone to provoke and slice themselves on him. Ink clung to his hands like how blood stained his navy-blue uniform in spots, and he was burnt and weary, legs stiff in measured strides, elbows jutting by folded arms and lips pressed into a line. He was brokering no argument this night.

Sarutobi Hiruzen, quick to interpret the turns of his protege's mood, took a step to the left deferentially, inclining his head.

Surveying the pinpointed area of destruction, Minato asked: "Hiruzen-sama, what has been done thus far?"

Succinctly, he replied, "The Chūnin we sent out are surveying the full scope of the damage and put out most of the fires, the civilians and younger Shinobi are still hidden under the active evacuation protocols and the rescue efforts have started."

"Bring Code Red down to Orange," Minato ordered. "For now, spread the word that Kyuubi has been subdued— no, killed. We will need the morale and give our villagers the incentive to stay. Uchiha-sama, double the people manning the entrances and have even stringent checks. Notify me of the rate of migration when possible." The ANBU will take care of setting up checkpoints and guard posts at a further perimeter…

"Do we deter their decision?" Fugaku enquired, arms sliding under his sleeves as the arrangement of guard rotations were stringing together in his mind.

"No," sighed the blonde Hokage. "The exodus after danger is a course set to happen. If the civilians cannot trust our village for security, they are unlikely to stay. We will have to win their trust again. However, while it will pose as an issue later, it is not our main priority. For now, I want the administration focused on making a board for those unaccounted for and the generation of jobs for the reconstruction of the village. Clan Heads Yamanaka, Nara and Hyūga, can I lend a few dozen hands to manage the influx of information?"

"Of course," they answered dutifully.

"Akimichi-sama, can I task you to look for construction contractors?"

"Consider it done."

"I will lend you a few runners when they are made available," Minato promised. "Yamanaka-sama?"


"Coordinate a list of those out on a mission. For long-term missions, ask of them to return as soon as possible. For those on their way home and with a history of intelligence-gathering… send them on a mission to nearby villages to obfuscate the information that is coming out of Konoha. And we should ready the diplomats," Minato grimaced. "The conflict with Kumo is far from over and they will try to gain an upper hand with the knowledge that we will be hard-pressed to retaliate. We will have another discussion about this later."

"And what of the Kyuubi?"

Composure cracking, Minato glared sharply at the speaker for the Elder Council. "Handled, Homura-sama." The weight of his address assumed more. " The jinchūriki has been secured. You will be privy to the details when the situation is officially settled. Until then, I trust that you will wait on the news."

He turned his attention back to drawing board. "Now about the villagers who were displaced… We can go with a few routes. We can compensate any hostels and hotels later for providing rooms. And if it isn't too much, I would like unaffected clans — especially those further from the destruction to open up their Clan Halls and empty houses to provide shelter for them. If it is insufficient… we can convert the larger training grounds into a makeshift camp, at least until the more permanent residences are settled. Open up the military stores - we have to tide through this and we can't have our people wanting."

"The Kurama Clan is mostly unaffected, Hokage-sama."

"So are the Inuzuka," chimed Inuzuka Tsume as she languidly stroked the fur of her companion. They, too, were on the edge; lips parted and baring their sharp teeth, affected by the terrible intrusion into their home territory.

"As are the Sarutobi," added Hiruzen. "Majority of the Senju grounds have been vacant for a time and far enough from the epicentre as well - perhaps we should consider that as a possible temporary housing quarters?"

Circulating the suggestion in his head, Minato nodded. "I will trust you with the arrangements, Hiruzen-sama. For the noble Clans who are stable and in good condition, report to Hiruzen-sama and aid in the process. Tsume-sama, can I request the Inuzuka to run the perimeter with the Uchiha for the first two weeks?" More than any other Clan, they needed the assurance that they were safe and reacquaint themselves to the destroyed landscape.

"Aburame-sama, seven miles out of Konoha there is a Bijuudama-induced crater." And further out, there was the fight against the unknown assailant. Not to mention, the birthing grounds need a thorough check. He would need to send another personal missive. If there was someone he could trust to be part of the system; a loyal soldier to the hive, it would be Konoha's Kikachu-wielding clan. "May I borrow your expertise to scout out the situation?"

Shibi nodded subtly, nose dipping below in his collar in acknowledgement. A horde of bugs would hardly be discreet but Minato needed efficiency and thoroughness more than secrecy. With the triad of the Uchiha, Aburame and Inuzuka working in tandem to cover their flank and blind spots, Konoha's security would be assured until they returned to business proper. Kikachus have long taken to the habit of clinging onto ninken tails and coat unobtrusively either way; the two Clans were synergetic in spite of their Clan Leaders' contrasting personalities.

"Are there matters that have yet to be covered by the table of plans?" Minato asked. "Right," he ignored the Elder Council's questing scowls, before continuing, "Right. Then we are dismissed and we will convene tomorrow at noon for progress reports. Yamanaka-sama, Nara-sama, Hiruzen-sama and Uchiha-sama, can I ask for more of your time in my office?"

It was phrased more as a demand than a request, and the named leaders followed after the Yondaime Hokage as he swept out of the room, as brisk as he came.

In the safety of his office's brightening privacy barriers - updated by the courtesy of one paranoid student - and amongst his strongest allies, Namikaze Minato felt like he could finally breathe.

Although not truly, not when they were still in the straits of ominous orange, where it only took one light tug on the loosening noose to strangle.

The Yondaime settled in his chair, sitting for the first time in numberless hours. He leaned his head against steepled fingers and briefly closed his eyes, leaving his subordinates to stand at a distance and in silence. He needed a few minutes to recollect himself. Reorganise his priorities.

Security. Sustenance. Shelter. Kushina. Naruto. Kyuubi. Kakashi. Kara. Konoha. Elder's Council. Konoha. Konoha . Konoha.

Not yet, not yet. He chanted in his mind. The list kept repeating, tacking on other pressing issues in between; of cause and effect; of long and short term such that it disoriented him instead of centreing.

And Namikaze Minato—

no matter how human or how close he came to death tonight, balancing his life on a knife's edge only to have it purposefully renewed by the wants of another, and now forced into a ripple of events he cannot fully control

— was not allowed to break.

(He could break down later when all the dust and debris has been cleared and he was not choking on ashes; only then, when his work was done and his people were safe, would he let himself fall into pieces. Come morning, he will put himself back together as it was expected of him, smile and wit sharper from the jagged edges.)

His village needed him, and he was not allowed to break even if the mantle was heavy and threatened to crush him with its overwhelming weight. He had to keep going. The chair he sat in was made for only one, for it was always destined to be lonely at the top. Power for protection came with a price, and he would pay dearly for the rest of his life.

He swore to protect the Village by his life and he had half-succeeded.

Drawing deep breaths into his lungs and exhaling equally slow, Minato anchored himself on the chakra signature that was crackling softly above head. Constants. He rose to his full height, palms flat against the table as he supported himself in his accusation: "Uchiha-sama, do you swear that your fealty to Konohagakure no Sato is true?"

The implications of his worded phrase did not escape anyone in the room. Immediately, the atmosphere shifted; what was once thought to be a discussion became an interrogation, with the Yamanaka moving to block the exit, the Nara slanting towards the shadows, and the Third Hokage moving to his table side to position himself to intercept. Fugaku's ink-black pupils shrank, sleeves rustling from clenching fists.

"Yes, my fealty is true," Fugaku said flatly. "May I inquire why it is in doubt, Hokage-sama?"

Calmly, the Namikaze listed the evidence, "Tonight, the assailant who released the Kyuubi no Kitsune from Uzumaki Kushina was undoubtedly an Uchiha. One, known records of Bijuu control belong to three categories: Shodaime's Mokuton, an Uchiha's Sharingan and an Uzumaki's chakra chains. Two: having fought with the person, I can attest to the fact that he possessed a functional Sharingan, with a variant that allowed him to transport himself at will and allowed him to breech the chakra barriers. Three: only a select few, including the leaders of the noble clans were privy to the details of Uzumaki Kushina's birth-giving. How do you answer, Uchiha-sama?"

The Uchiha Head remained silent for a few moments. "Can I trust that nothing that is spoken here will leave the room?"

"You have our word."

Minato did not want to accuse his friend of such crimes but as the Yondaime Hokage, he had to get to the bottom of this. The limited mercy he could grant was privacy and letting Fugaku know the charges beforehand because the truth would have to come to light.

"The normal Sharingan cannot control a Bijuu, that much is true," Fugaku stated. "However, there is an additional stage to the Sharingan that can be triggered by extreme trauma, causing our Dōjutsu to mutate and gain new abilities and a unique formation. Only then, can an Uchiha control a Bijuu. And to my knowledge, possessors of such pair of eyes are only few… and most of them go blind after excessive use." He paused, letting the room digest his words.

"Once, you asked me why I was intent on subsuming one Hatake Kakashi into the Uchiha Clan, Hokage-sama, and this was the cause — even with two tomoes, we were not certain if it would continue to develop after numerous incidents of trauma, with or without special channels to his eye. We have kept a tight leash on the records of those who might have come to possess a Mangekyo Sharingan, and it would be easy to check for their alibis during the time of the Kyuubi no Kitsune's descent."

Softly, Minato asked, "Are there any known Mangekyo Sharingan users with only a single eye then?"

Someone with such a distinctive defect and immense power would have been hard to miss. Fugaku blinked, "Not one I can dredge up from memory, no."

The blonde man let out a short breath, hiding the torment in his cerulean eyes by lowering his head. Every sentence that his friend said in defence of his clan only confirmed his worst, possible suspicions.

"Thank you for your honesty, Fugaku," said Minato, his change of address signalling the end of the interrogation. "If it is not too taxing, please prioritise the gathering of these alibis. It will be important soon."

The Uchiha Head nodded, the heavy lines of his scowl transmitting his understanding of the situation's gravitas. Should the accusations of a coup d'état fall on their backs with the Kyuubi's release as reasoning, they would suffer tremendous losses in reputation and public trust.

"And what of the assailant?" Nara Shikaku enquired, straightening out of his characteristic slouch as he sensed that conspiracy was afoot.

"He escaped with the teleportation jutsu of his and I couldn't give chase. He's dangerous," the Yondaime Hokage claimed with furrowed brows. "It won't be the last we will see of him; we have to plan carefully if his degree of mobility is as terrifying as I think it to be. Inoichi, remind me to have a session of mind walk soon – we have to revisit the memory while it is still fresh."

"Why did he want the Kyuubi?" Shikaku bounced off Minato's train of thought.

"Delusion," Minato reckoned, before recalling the masked man's words— "For peace of the world." They were idyllic, but he wasn't certain how amassing weapons of mass destruction would bring him closer to the goal. The recent Shinobi War and its list of worst massacres have only served to affirm how much of a destructive warhead the Tailed Beasts were.

He carded his fingers through his spiky locks in frustration. "No matter what his end goal is, he will be coming back for the Kyuubi."

Then, he turned towards the shadows of his office. "ANBU Commander, cooperate with the Hunter-nin Division to search the sites of destruction for clues, gather abled, retired operatives to bolster the security for the next two weeks." He trusted his confidante knew what to do, and it was not that much different from wartime. While he was cognizant of the fact that there would not be much results to gain where the madman's whereabouts was concerned, considering his ability to shift through spatial dimensions at will, it still provided an opportunity to cleanse and swap out the personnel.

"Search for news with regards to the assailant – whose description I will send to you shortly – and keep the information under the wraps. We do not need undue panic about the fact that he had escaped or the ostracising of a single clan."

"Understood," came a timely reply, and everyone in the room barely felt the shifting of the chakra before the Head of ANBU disappeared back to his headquarters to fulfil his orders.

"What about the status of the jinchūriki?"

"Kushina is out of the red now," Minato replied, worry tinging his voice. She had barely pushed through with the damage she sustained from childbirth and the extraction, and she had to be kept under a medically induced coma for further monitoring. Belatedly, he added, "Biwako-sama is fine as well; she suffered heavy from blood loss but she will make full recovery."

"That's good to hear," Hiruzen murmured, grateful for the news. Perhaps a stray tear glinted in the older man's eyes but it disappeared as quickly as it formed. Or maybe it was relief disguising something else.

Namikaze Minato was too distracted to notice the fleeting changes in his expression.

"And your child?" the Sandaime Hokage asked a few seconds later.

Those words made the Yondaime stare at his predecessor curiously, although the thoughts hidden within its cerulean depths were unknown.

A big smile broke out on his face. "Namikaze-Uzumaki Naruto was born in sound health. Cutest little thing I've ever seen. Requires some days of observation, but so far, there is has been no visible signs that the incident will affect his growth in the future."

"That name is a mouthful," Shikaku commented wryly but the happiness he felt for an old friend was no less. "Congratulations on successfully becoming a father."

The others in the office chimed in their congratulations and Minato accepted them before he replied good-naturedly. "What can we do? Both Kushina and I are almost the last of the lineages and Naruto deserves to have both of them."

Unlike the larger clans which had the possibility of hiding their heirs, Naruto would not share the same fortune. The colour of his hair and eyes were a dead giveaway and the matrimony between the Kiiroi Senko and Akai Chishio no Habanero was open knowledge ever since his ascension as a Hokage. If he could not hide it, at least he should flaunt it and make their enemies question if they wanted to make an enemy out of an entire village in order to act against them through their child.

Then, Minato turned his head towards the Uchiha again. "Fugaku-sama?"

Hearing a dismissal when he heard one, something he was incredibly sensitive to now considering how his clan was at a precarious position by no fault of his own, the stoic man nodded quietly before he took his leave first, which tightened the circle of those who the next information even more.

The Yondaime Hokage allowed the silence to linger for a few seconds as his gaze swept across each individual in the room. His fingers steepled and he uttered a long sigh that was tantamount to admitting his tiredness; his worn out and frustrations which made it hard even for the Nara and the Yamanaka to predict what he was going to say next.

"The Kyuubi no Kitsune – or the half that was left of it from five years ago – was sealed into Namikaze-Uzumaki Naruto on October 10, shortly after his birth."

The eyes of everyone left in the room widened, protests apparent in the shifts of their postures. But all of them knew that it was probably done because there was no other choice, if they had to choose another container for the tailed beast, a half-Uzumaki, a day old or not, was still a better option than most.

But that was not the final bomb of the night.

"The person who transported the Kyuubi away from the village centre and later subdued and sealed it successfully was not me, but a teenage girl."

"How is that possible," Sarutobi Hiruzen was the first to come to as he muttered his doubts and disbelief under his breath.

Nara Shikaku felt the same. Millions of thoughts ran through his head as he tried to piece everything he knew together. "She mimicked your transportation technique and appearance and her speed does not fall short of yours and she is skilled in Fūinjutsu… No, while all those can be true, it might be more appropriate to say that she was prepared to cope with the situation, and not just on the matter of sealing a Bijuu. Which makes me highly suspect that this unknown girl has a backing behind to instil in her the know-hows of the various techniques she had used."

But what Nara Shikaku did not have to say explicitly but everyone one was cognizant of was that it was still a terrifying prospect, no matter whether the unknown saviour had a backing or not. Call her an altruist but the greatest weapon in ninja villages was technically in her hands like an explosive seal set to explode, to say nothing of the fact that it was the greatest of nine tailed beasts. Call her a sycophant, but that would mean that some enemy was deeply familiar with the inner workings of Konoha and it was sending a warning sign that they could easily undo the very foundations Konoha stood on. But if that were the case, what benefits would one gain from removing the threat from the village and allowing the jinchūriki to be a native?

As much as the Nara prided himself as the chief strategist, he was vaguely aware that they were missing too much information even in the best of cases and most of what he had were ideas and intuition.

Minato sighed heavily. "Whatever her motives were, she is more dangerous than the assailant, even if she decided to reduce the damages for Konoha rather than exacerbating it. But one thing is clear, it is that neither of them will be attacking the village for months at least, considering how their existences have been exposed and that they have largely exhausted their abilities. We can only do what we can for the time being and focus our resources on the rebuilding of our village."

"For the moment, keep what has been said in this room under the wraps, and anything said here is classified as an S-rank secret. Yamanaka-sama, I'll send some soldiers who have seen either of those figures for your reviewing after myself. Nara-sama, there's no need to mobilise the Jōnin as of yet, the ANBU will handle most of the searching and the processing of the information. The fewer people who know of this, the better and that includes who the current jinchūriki, of which Uzumaki Kushina will retain the status for in the foreseeable future. But the diplomats… reinforce or call them back from hostile villages, that is still in contention."

Then, his darkened cerulean eyes fell on his predecessor. "Sarutobi-sama, I'm afraid I'll be needing your help in the office."

Naturally, the Sandaime Hokage nodded. "These are trying times for our village, my hands are always Hers to borrow."

For what was not the first time and most definitely not the last, Kurama thought his vessel was a dolt.

She was prone to her moments of mad brilliance especially in the arts of Fūinjutsu, but overall? Still an idiot to her core. Leave it to her, a jinchūriki with burgeoning reserves to the point where even he was questioning where it was all stored to still get chakra exhaustion of all things.

In her reckless capacity to be self-sacrificing as well as being a creature of impulse and regrettable hindsight, she seemed to make a habit of finding her own limits. The Kyuubi most definitely didn't know how long she could survive on a battlefield by running on pure adrenaline and the barest war rations or how many days she could stave off sleep. When it came to the end, she was often left wrecked physically and mentally to the extent where she would pass out into a near coma.

Her only saving grace was her sheer dumb luck which seemed to have saved the day again .

(It seemed like the world wanted to restore karmic balance for the poor hand it had dealt her by gifting her an advantage, even after she decided to give the cards an illegal shuffle.)

Despite all her planning, she hadn't fully accounted for the enormous sunk cost for sealing a Kyuubi. And for that mistake, she had almost paid for it with her life . She was incredibly lucky that his Yin half hadn't even put up a token protest against the sealing, and where there was insufficient energy, the seal had chosen to leech from the barrier first rather than the caster. She was getting off light with her chakra exhaustion, and even more fortunate that she had him to drag her away.

One of the perks of their symbiotic relationship was that he could apply seamless control to her body by flooding her systems with his chakra. It was the only thing keeping her from the brunt of chakra exhaustion too, and they would have to make do until they were safe enough for her to properly recover her reserves. But still. Idiot. Unforgivably, irrevocably and suicidal. He was going to rant her ears off when he had a chance.

Kurama crawled out of the tree trunk Kara had chosen to hide herself in the first hours of rapid activity and tumbled to the ground. Weak . She was feverish and cold at the same time, her chakra pathways starved of nourishment. Deprived of the necessary energy, the jinchūriki was akin to a new-born fawn, trembling and falling with each attempt to get up.

It was an ingenious idea to hide where danger was, since with her extremely low chakra reserves, she would barely count for blimp on the radar, especially when the radiating remnants of Yin Kyuubi was still hanging in the air and fogging up chakra senses. No one would expect the perpetuator to be this near to the scene of the crime either – although Kurama would have preferred if they hadn't hit the new low in the first place.

He grunted as he shoved her physical body up the tree to lean heavily against it for support. 'Where to?'

'Anywhere but here,' she croaked in their mindscape, her frame more spectral than substance. Red shrouded her in health and destruction, and she was clinging onto the last vestiges of her consciousness.

Mentally, the Kyuubi calculated the best probability of their survival. Being more Naruto than Kara and reeking of his presence meant she could go nowhere near the epicentre of destruction. Her apartment wasn't viable either, considering the seals they had accidentally burnt through. Not the Yondaime's house. No hospitals.

He growled. He hoped his partner's faith in the Sarutobi was not misplaced. Hefting her body to support her own weight, he pushed the petite vessel to its upper limits as he started on a slow limp. Being a smaller clan traditionally, the Sandaime's residence was near the outskirts of the village — which serves his purposes perfectly.

They tripped, staggered and oftentimes fell, and the trek towards safety was a long, treacherous road with too many obstacles to avoid. Eventually, Kurama and Kara made it to the back gardens, a quaint thing with sparse bushes and flower beds dying in the throes of autumn.

Slowly, he pulled back his chakra from her body as they grew closer to the main property, until finally, she collapsed at their back porch, head hitting the step with a light thud.

Kurama sighed, closing his eyes briefly as he felt help coming.

Sarutobi Koichi knew his father had many secrets.

Afterall, where his younger brother was showing the inclination to step out of their father's shadows, fire burning in his eyes to make a name for himself apart from being a Hokage's son, he had willingly stepped into it. He thrived there – a sort of watchful half-existence, and he had learned more about Sarutobi Hiruzen than what the rumours and infrequent appearances could tell him.

(It was ironic that only in the shadows that they could view each other's truest forms.)

He was a liar. He was despicable. He had done thing that are worth regretting. He was human. (They were ninja.)

And when he discovered a girl of Namikaze-blonde hair and Kyuubi whiskers on her cheeks, dread settled like stone in his gut.

His first instinct was to hide her, carrying her into the room furthest from the main chambers, away from the civilians who would be arriving to seek refuge soon.

She was cold in his arms, laboured breaths brushing against his neck hotly. She was thin, lighter than he had assumed, considering the large fit of her outfit. She smelled like burnt chakra and ink and Koichi discerned the cause:

Chakra exhaustion , he realised, immediately searching for thick blankets around the guest room to pile it on the girl. Being a medic's son, he erred on the side of caution, retrieving some heat packs to place over her abdomen only to pause.

It was startling warm at her wellspring of power like her body was working in overdrive to restore some of her reserves to make her functional at least.

"Leave her be," his father voiced from the door and Koichi aborted his action, letting his arms drop to his side.

Not to fall into a parade rest but a defiant curl of his fingers around the heat, turning to stare at Hiruzen.

"Father," he started softly, "Who is she?"

And perhaps that was the most damning question to ask.

On the bed they made, the girl rested, blonde hair too distinct a shade to mistake. The length of it and her foreign style of dress marked her as the interference – wielding Fūinjutsu as if it were second nature like an Uzumaki, and with the speed befitting of a Namikaze. She was here for an instant and then gone but still people saw ; his contacts within ANBU had only served to confirm that their Yondaime Hokage was otherwise engaged when the Kyuubi was taken away.

She was dangerous. Had Koichi been more loyal a son rather than a soldier to Konoha, taking after the person who he inherited the namesake from, perhaps he would not have asked.

Knowledge was used for the cutting.

With her frightening foresight, she had changed the course of history as well.

Frustratingly enough, the Sandaime Hokage replied cryptically, "Someone who should not have existed. You are better off forgetting her, Koichi."

But he was not trained to turn a blind eye. He was taught to see threats at every corner, scrutinise every possible place a weapon could be hidden on a person and mark out all exits.

"This is treason," he said harshly.

"And the acknowledgement of the truth is an even greater treason," said Hiruzen sharply.

"And what," his voice became quieter when he felt the girl twitch in the futon, terribly sensitive to the noise, "exactly is that truth, Sandaime-sama?"

"Some things are best left unknown lest they become self-fulfilling prophecies." Hiruzen almost spat out a word that would have demarcated them as superior and subordinate, that would have gained his complicity, but he swallowed it down. "Koichi, understand that there are some matters that I could never confide in you."

And maybe it was the plea that he heard in his father's voice, subtle, but most of all, tired , like the weight of this gigantic secret was weighing him down as well, that made Koichi stop with his accusations. For the first time in a long time, Sarutobi Koichi looked at Sarutobi Hiruzen; really looked at him—

That frame of his which was no longer as strong as it was decades ago, whose thinness in flaxen muscles was being accentuated by his combat uniform. Back facing the light trickling in from the corridor, it dragged out a long shadow from beneath his feet and it hid much of his face. It was stretched out, skinny, almost far reaching as it touched the tip of his toes. Yet, he was silhouetted in the warm orange shade and he could see the small flame in his eyes that refused to burn out underneath the deepening wrinkles and the age spots.

Sarutobi Hiruzen was growing old and burdened and burning up – that was what Sarutobi Koichi realised. Human. Someone like him, in their bone structure and the colour of their irises, in the blood in his veins and he was his father as much as he was his mother.

Half-distressed by his own epiphany which had metaphorically stripped his father of his armour of invulnerability, Koichi asked, "Why are you doing this?"

"For the Hi no Ishi ."

For the Will of the Fire that must continue burning.

Then, "It is a secret I am willing to take to the grave."

I will keep this secret, not relinquishing it even on my dying breath.

(He would take the secret to his grave, or the secret would be his grave.)

Sarutobi Hiruzen knew, from the moment he gave up the hat that used to sit on his head, he would no longer be in place where people could not question him. His sins would be laid bare for his successor to inspect if he cared enough to dig through his archives and thoroughly, and even if he imposed rankings and seals to ensure that even a Hokage could not access it, the very existence of them was already a hint that an unspeakable secret existed.

He was a man walking on tightrope and running through rings of fire. He could feel the heat singe his hair and brush along his skin, instincts growing louder of how the flames rise and swallow because he used the same elements on his enemies. But it was hard to get off a tiger once it was ridden; only lies could cover the initial lie; he was doomed to prolong the inevitable until she was ready to disclose the truth.

Because ultimately, her truth was not his to say.

The past that tore her apart; that made her shattered glass, that made her desperate enough to drag herself down this road even broken and bleeding. He did not know all of it. He never would because he was certain that there were parts which she had consciously forgotten to preserve the last of herself.

Uzumaki Naruto was made of stitched up lips and bleeding smiles, deteriorated limbs and overactive mind, her smaller feet dancing like an unstoppable spinning top which she had set in motion. As to where it flew and where it would land was a destination no one was certain of, not even her, but her brunt determination ensured that she would carry forward until she achieved her goals.

If there was one thing he knew about her, it was that it took an absolute madman to attempt what she did, and what she was doing now.

For the first time in a long time, Sarutobi Hiruzen was just part of someone's plans.

Not the controller. A chess piece. Someone who was just paving the way.

The retired Hokage knew that all too well.

"Do not ask, my boy."

For I do not want to drag you down into this maelstrom.

Koichi moved towards him step by step. Noiselessly. Stepping into his shadow, like he always had, but this time he reached out, closing the distance as he place one hand on his shoulder and hoped it could give him strength.

"I understand."

"Watch over her, I'll handle this suitably."

Softly, a whisper that scarcely trembled:

"You always have."

Ninjas have always been liars by omission.